Rachel Cohen

Mondrian Trees Reflected

Mondrian landscape

Piet Mondrian, Farm Near Duivendrecht, c.1916. Art Institute of Chicago. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

This entry was written for, and is up today at, zoeryanprojects, more information below.

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I walked by this Mondrian one day at the Art Institute, just wandering with a friend.

I am tall, and she is taller, carries herself like a long line and speaks in lineated prose, and, although she was in another room when I happened on this painting, the elongation of space was a part of my impression.

I first became aware of the significance of trees for Mondrian at the great MoMA retrospective, which I am surprised to realize was in 1995-1996. Its insights have remained quite present for me.

In that show, I felt you could watch Mondrian working through trees to come to the abstraction that mattered to him. He painted trees often, and often reflected in water, a common sight in the watery Netherlands.

And the lines began to come apart. He got something crucial from a Picasso and Braque exhibition in 1911, but it also just came from working with trees.

This painting is a bit later, 1916, perhaps more representational then some of the work he was then doing, but, the way he has chosen to make a painting here, the vibrant possibilities of abstraction run all through it.

I love the reflection, how the house and trees in the water may give a deeper understanding than the house and trees in the air.

And the lines, the thick-knotted lines.

Zoë Ryan, Curator of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago, is collecting reflections by people from Chicago and beyond on works in the Art Institute's collection. I was delighted to contribute this entry. zoeryanprojects is on instagram at zoeryanprojects, on twitter at @zoeryanprojects.

Vuillard and Vegetation

Vuillard and Vegetation

Édouard Vuillard, Landscape: Window Overlooking the Woods, 1899, Art Institute of Chicago. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

This week I want to think about vegetation and growth. I have been reading a long poem by Francis Ponge from Le Parti Pris de Choses, which my friend Massimo sent on to me – happily, since I cannot find my copy of it. In the poem “Faune et Flore” I find the line: “Il n’y a pas d’autre mouvement en eux que l’extension.” Extension is their only movement.

It has rained enormously over the last few days. The last five springs have been the rainiest five years on record in Chicago and the surrounding farmlands. It is impossible to continue to grow certain crops, like apples, at these rates of rain, and this is accelerating the closure of family farms in our region. Apple-picking is a part of the fall for Chicago children, but last year, there was nowhere to go.

This morning, the door to our back garden was still steamy from the rains. Through the thick dripping mist, I could see that the garden has grown inches and shades – the solomon seal, the ferns, the goat’s beard, bittersweet, and climbing hydrangeas have all shot upward and outward, the space between the plants has filled in and overlapped, dirt is almost no longer visible, and the whole garden has darkened and come into a mid-spring green, where yellow is less prominent, but not yet the darker shades of summer, an intense middle green, like the greens of grass, with some gray and white, here and there red undertones.

The Vuillard, Landscape: Window Overlooking the Woods, from 1899, was meant to invoke a tapestry. The borders and edges are deliberately handled to remind a viewer of medieval and Renaissance tapestries, with their areas of flowered ground, their banners and undulant terrain. It is made in textures of growth.

Today I am struck by the urgency of vegetal growth. The plants making themselves out of the soil in phenomenal bursts. That color green which is so sensitive to light, and derives extraordinary propulsivity from light.

Three Pissarros Over Time

Three Pissarros Over Time

Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos Rachel Cohen.

A Pissarro landscape has a special quality. As in a Monet, the vegetation has a lift, but this is even a bit more pronounced, so that there is a strong space around the leaves, which have a kind of brio.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

As in a Sisley, there are glints, and the overall effect is quite bright, but the strokes are not quite as thin as Sisley’s.

Camille Pissarro, Cotes des Grouettes, near Pontoise, probably 1878. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos Rachel Cohen.

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To understand the painter who emerged in the 1870s, it is useful to look back a little into his history. Like all of the central generation of Impressionists, Pissarro followed Manet through the 1860s. Paint is smooth and areas of color fairly large, as here, in 1867, Jallais Hill. Beautiful, and with a certain opacity, something the eye moves over, but there is an incipient sense of through.

Camille Pissarro, Jallais Hill, 1867. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, Jallais Hill, 1867.

Pissarro and his companion, later his wife, Julie Vellay had to flee Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. When they returned in 1872, they found that the Prussians had destroyed more than 1400 of his paintings done over twenty years. So the record of his early understanding of landscape, and of paint, is incomplete. Some think that these destroyed paintings would have shown the birth of Impressionism. This one from the Met is one of only 40 that remained, and becomes important in showing the great spatial and geometric clarity that underlay all his work.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, Jallais Hill, 1867.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, Jallais Hill, 1867.

By 1874, look how the mass is made with freedom and movement. How many colors are stippled through one another. This is how form and space are made.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

1874 is the year of the First Impressionist Exhibition, brought about in large part by Pissarro and his activity, his work as a uniting force. He was a primary articulator of the injustice of the old Salon system; he was always strong in his defense of working people as subjects of art; having grown up a child of Jewish shopkeepers in St. Thomas, he understood the dynamics of the colonial world and its cosmopolitan capitals, and this allowed him to see landscape, its cultivation and its colors, with a different kind of eye.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

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Pissarro, ever alert to new developments, joined Seurat and Signac in the pointillist movements of the 1880s, taking color juxtaposition to an extreme. Perhaps these theories felt like a confirmation of convictions he’d had all his life about how to make space by the application of small areas of color; he would say that he preferred the scientific to the romantic. The three landscapes I am looking at here are not from this pointillist period, but they are not disconnected from Pissarro's steady experimentalism.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

Going back through my own entries on Pissarro, I find that it was seeing these landscapes in 2013 that first allowed me to start my own method of photographing the details of paintings. Pissarro himself was not as interested in photography as Degas and Caillebotte and others who were serious photographers. But he was very modern.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

Landscapes by Pissarro might seem a little less than Monet, not as powerful in their color, not as complete and radical an accomplishment as Monet's great series paintings or his late abstract works. What makes them so strikingly modern is a little hard to identify.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, Cotes des Grouettes, near Pontoise, probably 1878.

What I see thinking about these three paintings today is a definiteness and clarity, a structure in space that emerges over time, and comes not in spite of gentleness or nuance, but somehow together with these qualities.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

Pissarro wrote a volume of letters to his son Lucien, a volume now famous, but at the time a strong record of the running thoughts of a gifted and impoverished man. [My edition is the one edited by John Rewald in 1943, and later translated by Lionel Abel.]

On November 20, 1883: Remember that I have the temperament of a peasant, I am melancholy, harsh and savage in my works, it is only in the long run that I can expect to please, and then only those who have a grain of indulgence; but the eye of the passerby is too hasty and sees only the surface. Whoever is in a hurry will not stop for me.

Folding Screen

Folding Screen

Ogata Korin, Cranes and Pines, mid-17th century.


I had a thought last week at the Metropolitan Museum's Poetry of Nature exhibit of Edo Paintings.  A most basic, untutored thought, but of interest to me.  Standing before a folding screen, on which was mounted Cranes and Pines, a work in ink and light color by Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716).  That a screen is a stylized geometry of the effects of landscape.  The sense one has, looking, that a curve of trees comes forward, that water both widens and recedes to the distance.  These effects are considered and commented upon by the angled folds of a screen.  It seems interesting that the experience, which, when I noticed it, felt like an austere version of the repose felt in pausing in a particularly beautiful moment outdoors, is uncapturable by photograph.


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We are here, at the place we come to once a year, in the summer.  I am sitting outside on the worn porch by the little harbor where the moored boats turn to align with the wind.  On the surface of the water the oddly abstract patterns of curved lines.  The other night, we sat out to watch the Perseids fall in the sky.  A heron was fishing off the end of a small jetty.  We would not have seen it, but there was a dusky orange light set to come on periodically and then the bird appeared in sharp dark outline with the fish below the surface scattering away from its pointed beak.      


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